I was chatting with a colleague of mine the other day. He asked me, “Do you think we retain more when we hear a book, than when we read it? If so, why do you think that is?” Both of us are audiobook afficionados, so we do a lot of listening to books.
His question got me thinking. Is retaining information really the goal of reading?
I don’t think so. I think the most important net effect from reading a book is how it changes us, not the stuff we can recall.
That sounds pretty nebulous, so let me provide three examples:
- When I read the Bible (which is vastly different from any other book), my goal isn’t to remember all the facts, but rather to see God, and to allow him to change me through what I read. Sure, I’d love to ace every game of “Bible Trivia,” but that’s not the point of reading the Bible. Remembering facts is incidental to the deeper work of a changed life.
- I read a book called Atlas Shrugged. Recently, I was trying to remember the name of the protagonist, and it took me a while. (I finally came up with it: Daphne Taggart.) I may not remember all the facts from the book, but I know that the book plunged me into a deep thinking experience about objectivism, politics — stuff like that.
- Some of the books I read have a lot of facts, figures, dates, names, and details. I don’t remember them. But I remember how the book impacted me. For example, I read Blink by Pink (sounds strange, I know). I forget a bunch of the content, but I know that the book helped launch me into an exercising routine that changed my life. I read When the Rivers Run Dry, and cannot tell you how a dew pond is formed. But I sure can tell you how I was impacted by a staggering realization water’s importance.
So, remembering what we read isn’t as important as being changed by what we read. There is a difference, but it’s subtle.
The subtlety leads me to offer a disclaimer. Part of being changed by what we read is remembering what we read. Being changed means recalling the content of a book to some degree. That’s why memorizing Scripture is important. That’s why I’d like to re-read some books I own. I want the actual content — facts, statements, and information — to stick. More importantly, I want to go through the information again to become further changed by its value, not just its facts.
Books change us, but that is not primarily a change in the amount of mental stuff we retain. It has to do more with the way we change as a person. Here are my takeaways from this thought.
- It’s important to be intentional about what I read.
- It’s important to be careful how I read.
- It’s not necessary to beat myself up if I forget stuff about a book.
- If I want to become a changed person, It’s important to read. Period.
Sometimes, I get an idea and state it too strongly. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.